HARLOW, ENGLAND — Keeping a family business operating for 155 years in a highly competitive industry is a remarkable feat that requires continuous dedication and progressive leadership by each generation that manages the business.
In the case of GR Wright and Sons, which for the last 40 years has been led by David Wright as managing director, having a passion for flour milling has been the common thread during the nearly 16 decades of uninterrupted excellence.
“We are as passionate about the business as our ancestors and have invested heavily to ensure we have the most technically advanced operations producing the highest quality flours and mixes in the best food safety environment,” said David Wright, the fifth generation of the Wright family to oversee the business.
The company is based in Harlow, England, where it opened a state-of-the-art flour mill in 2021 on a brownfield site. It also operates a small specialist flour mill in Ponders End, where the family business started in 1867 and where flour has been milled for nearly 1,000 years. GR Wright and Sons has another site, which opened in 2014, located at Delta Park, England. It features a purpose-built blending and packing facility for the manufacture of specialist mixes.
“We supply a complete range of flours and baking mixes to suit every type of business from the largest industrial food manufacturers to the small artisan bakers,” David Wright said. “We deal with all the main retailers in the UK, and most of the main wholesalers distributing to catering companies, shops and fast-food outlets.
“We make a full range of high-quality flours with superior baking qualities for a wide range of finished products such as bread, chapatti, naan, pizza, pitta, bagels, artisan sourdoughs, as well as self-raising and culinary flours. Some of our products are brand leaders in the flour market and many are used to make brand-leading baked goods.”
The company, which was founded by David’s great- great-grandfather, George Wright, eventually will be in the capable hands of 33-year-old James Wright, David’s son and currently the company’s commercial director.
James Wright, the sixth generation of the family in a leadership position with the company, spent his first 10 years in production, like his father starting as a milling student at the Swiss Milling School in St. Gallen, Switzerland, before becoming production director at GR Wright and Sons.
Major investment in new technology
In one of the most important decisions in the company’s history, David and James decided, after considering building the new mill at the existing location in Ponders End, to erect the plant at a new location.
“The new mill at Harlow is one of the most modern and technically advanced of its kind in the world,” said James Wright, who has worked at the family mill for more than 10 years.
The land where the new mill stands, located 10 miles to the north of the historic Ponders End site, was purchased by GR Wright in 2016 from defense contractor Raytheon. The building on the premises was not conducive for flour milling so it was demolished to make room for the new milling facility, which meant the site was designed from scratch. Construction began in 2019 with Clegg Food Projects serving as the general contractor. Trying to build a new flour mill during a global pandemic was frustrating and challenging, David Wright said.
“We built the new mill facility during COVID, which delayed the project,” David Wright said.
Shortly after the global lockdown commenced in the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19, the number of contractors on the mill site in Harlow, Essex, England, was trimmed from 150 to four. Eventually, many started to return to the site, but it inevitably delayed the opening. The company still managed to begin operating the £47 million flour mill at the start of 2021 with the site becoming fully operational during the spring of that year.
The result is a game-changing, highly automated facility that stands six stories tall and can process up to 450 tonnes of wheat per day.
David Wright said the new plant features improved process flow, increased wheat and flour storage, a larger warehouse and cutting-edge technology that increased efficiency at all levels of the operation.
Partnering again with Bühler
GR Wright and Sons turned to their longtime milling technology partner Bühler AG, Uzwil, Switzerland, to install the milling equipment in the new plant. The packaging equipment was supplied by Belgium-based Arodo and Germany-based Fawema.
The heart of the mill features Bühler’s Antares roller mills, Polaris purifiers and Sirius sifters.
The roller mills feature recipe-driven automatic roll gap adjustment and automatic roll temperature monitoring through Bühler’s Mercury SCADA software. GR Wright’s Harlow facility is the first flour mill in the United Kingdom to use this cutting-edge control system. Bühler also installed its MYRG technology, which allows for continuous online measurement of finished products. The system allows GR Wright and Sons to continuously monitor protein, moisture, water absorption, and bran specs that impact the end product.
The plant also relies on Bühler Insights, a cloud-based monitoring system, to analyze all aspects of production. The control screen can go to replay mode so operators can go through the process from startup of any run to check where and why a problem might have occurred.
James Wright said Bühler Insights has already positively impacted the company’s flour quality.
“Bühler Insights aggregates all of our production data into the Bühler Cloud,” James Wright said. “This service provides us with many valuable tools. These include an error and downtime analysis module. This tells us about breakdowns over a shift, where they occurred and which plant was affected.
“We also use yield analysis to identify and respond to fluctuations in the extraction rate. These tools integrate to allow us to produce a finished flour that is consistently of the highest quality.”
Despite the extremely high level of automation — the plant has the ability to operate in “lights out” unmanned mode — GR Wright and Sons still wanted a human presence in the mill so millers from Ponders End were transferred to the new plant.
“We recognize that technology is only as good as the people that operate it and continue to build a great team of skilled and knowledgeable staff, many who have very long service records with the company,” David Wright said.
Automated wheat intake process
Wheat delivered to the mill in Harlow is stored in 26 grain bins with an overall storage capacity of 7,000 tonnes.The mill features a fully automatic wheat intake system utilizing bar code technology to allocate and route wheat to intake bins. David Wright said most of the wheat is sourced from local farmers and is breadmaking wheat, but some Canadian wheat is imported through the Port of Tilbury.
Through an automated wheat intake process, 200 tph can be received, taking just eight minutes to tip a 29-tonne load of wheat. Everything is operated automatically using bar codes, which open doors and start delivery routes to the raw wheat silos.
A key feature in the wheat cleaning house is Bühler’s Vitaris combicleaner. Water is added using Bühler MOZL intensive dampening equipment while Bühler scourers and aspirators remove the dust from the wheat kernel crease before entering the holding bin. In the bin, the wheat is weighed before going to first break.
The new mill also has about 1,200 tonnes of flour storage. About half of the flour produced at the new mill is earmarked for bulk delivery while the other half is delivered in bags, David Wright said.
“Mostly bags are packed in 16 kilograms on the Arodo packer with some 1.5-kg bags packed on the Fawema packer,” he said.
Blackbird machine-monitoring software is used on all packing equipment to analyze downtime and operational efficiency.
All of GR Wright and Sons mainstream bread flours are produced at the Harlow mill, while specialist flours are produced at Ponders End and the Delta Park facility makes a wide range of bread and confectionary mixes, David Wright said.
“We serve large plant bakeries, food manufacturers, wholesalers, craft bakers and all the major retailers,” David Wright said. “We are still a relatively small player in the UK market, but volumes have increased steadily over the last 10 years.”
Even with the new mill and the technology upgrades that have benefited the company, David Wright said the current business environment is challenging. He sees controlling costs — particularly energy costs — as perhaps the biggest barrier to maximizing profits in the next few years.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also has adversely impacted the UK-based company.
“The war has obviously had a big effect on our costs, especially wheat and power, but also ingredients and packaging,” he said.